Like many modern couples, before getting married and having kids my husband and I spoke frequently about our plans to be true partners in life—to share in the household responsibilities equally and to co-parent our children in a way that defied the stereotypical norms of our society.
Then we actually had kids and we quickly learned that it was a lot more complicated than that.
Even as members of the millennial generation, we were born into a society in which gendered expectations have been rooted in our way of thinking, living and doing. Although growing up in progressive households molded our expectations and ideas, that background didn't prove enough to fully counter the pervasive inequalities that restrict partners from co-parenting as hoped.
The gender divide begins from day one of parenting
During my first pregnancy, the myth of equally co-parenting became apparent all too quickly. My husband had to choose between taking time off to come to my prenatal visits or using that time to lengthen his paternity leave, which was five days long. I asked him to do the latter and he willingly (albeit regretfully) obliged. Still, that did not prevent one of my midwives from commenting on his "lack of presence" during my prenatal care. It felt like a lose-lose situation.
Research shows that fathers crave more guidance and support through their transition into fatherhood. Yet, this isn't readily available, which sends a loud and clear message to new parents right from the start: Fathers don't need to learn how to parent, because they won't be the primary parents.
Our current prenatal care system leaves much to be desired, as anyone who has been rushed through a health care appointment can attest. But women at least have routine touch points with their providers where there is the possibility of deeper communications. Partners don't have that. Yes, some attend the prenatal visits—but this is a privilege not available to most couples.
Societal gender-based assumptions become barriers
From the moment we become parents, we begin to experience the gender stereotypes and social norms we have come to accept as, well, norms: The lack of changing tables in men's restrooms. The marketing of baby dolls to little girls. And the comments. Oh, the comments.
"Did daddy dress you today?"
"Oh, is it is daddy-daycare today?"
My husband was never asked if he planned to continue working or stay home with the baby. He is never asked how he manages to balance a career and a family. We simply do not think to ask these questions of men. He also, admittedly, never goes to sleep at night with an overwhelming sensation of was I good enough today. That's my societal baggage to enjoy.
Somewhere along the way, and over and over again, I absorbed the notion that a "good mom" looks and acts a certain way — and I believed it, to my core. It's the same ideology that keeps me up at night consumed with "mom guilt" for all the day's imperfections, while my husband sleeps peacefully next to me.
We have never once had a conversation in which we discussed who would take on the role of "master birthday party planner," "creator of holiday magic" and one thousand other responsibilities that tend to land on moms. Nor did we ever discuss who would rake the leaves or call the car mechanic—because those were obviously my husband's jobs.
For all our progressive and feminist proclamations, we certainly landed firmly in our expected — and oh-so-stereotypical — roles. Interestingly, a 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center highlighted the discrepancy between the percentage of moms who believe they were socialized into their roles (66%) versus the number of fathers (31%). Rather, fathers were more likely than mothers to say their parenting style was primarily attributable to their biology.
Signs of progress also highlight where we need to do more work
By and large, our society has made women the assumed primary parents and men the assumed primary breadwinners.
But that's not to say we're without progress: According to the Pew Research Center, when compared to fathers in the 1960s, today's fathers spend more than twice as much time on household chores, and three times as many hours taking care of their children. In 40% of households, women are the sole or primary breadwinner, compared to 11% in 1960. For the first time in history, women in the United States are more educated than men—36% of millennial women have earned a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 28% of men.
Our lived realities do little to reflect these changes. Consider the pay gap in the United States: Overall women's salaries are 20% less than men's. Add in racial inequalities and the numbers are far worse—a Hispanic woman, for example, garners only 53% of a man's salaries.
The Motherhood Penalty is a documented phenomenon for mothers in the paid workforce. For example, mothers are considered to be 12% less committed to their jobs than women who are not mothers and are six times less likely to be recommended for hire.
In other words, mothers are not regarded as good employees and are therefore less likely to get the job—despite studies that show the exact opposite. Motherly co-found Liz Tenety writes that, "over the course of a career, mothers are the most efficient workers around."
Between the gender pay-gap and the rising cost of childcare, it is no wonder that more women change career paths when they become parents than men. Many women realize that they will spend more on childcare than they bring home in salary, and decide that it makes the most economic sense to leave their paid work. Motherly's State of Motherhood Survey found that 50% of women made changes to their careers after having a baby, most of them becoming stay-at-home moms. Meanwhile, 58% of partners' careers stayed the same and 29% scaled up.
Nearly two-thirds of partners expressed the wish to spend more time with their kids, but couldn't because their work demands were too high, or their bosses expected them to be at work for long hours.
This disparity merely scratches the surface of the issue, though. To have the option to scale back on one's career means that someone else in the household can earn what the family needs to get by, which is not a possibility in single-parent households.
Making the changes we can
We are the products of a society that is heteronormative, patriarchal and built on systemic racism—all problems that are intertwined. Living in it means that we have to fight for true parenting equality at every turn. And the truth is that we don't always fight — sometimes we do just give in and fall into our expected roles.
Now let me be clear, my ability to spend a day not fighting is a privilege granted to me as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, English speaking, documented citizen. Being too tired to fight is not a right that many of our fellow mothers have.
Are we the generation to fix it? No, we are not. This problem is more than a generation deep, and it is going to take many seasons of parents to change the culture. Our indoctrination began long before we were conceived. And, by the time we become aware of it, we are fully immersed in its mess.
Does that mean we leave it alone? Also, no. Not even close.
We do the work. Every day.
We talk about injustices, with each other and our children. We own the biases we have inherited and we explore our shadows so that we can understand them, even when it is uncomfortable.
For me, it starts with baby steps—which usually means voicing the needs I normally keep quiet.
As I write this, my daughter sits beside me, home sick from school. When she woke up coughing this morning we did not have a conversation about "who was going to stay home with her?" I just automatically started shuffling my calendar around, and my husband automatically started getting dressed for work. I felt the resentment start to creep in, but realized that this shift is on me, just as much as it is on him. I called him and asked him to leave work early to take over, so we could at least share in the upheaval of a sick kid.
This pushed the limits of my comfort zone, something that is never easy to do. But, my belief is that by doing so, my children's comfort zones will naturally be even wider—so they can then push for more when their time comes. It may take generations, but progress is better than complacence. The future doesn't have to be the past.
Originally posted on Medium.